The best way to use the Pomodoro Technique in medical school is to clear a space and set the timer for 25 minutes. Having a strict goal to work on beforehand can also help. As well as a defined reward to look forward to at the end of each study session.
I’ve been a huge fan of this technique for a while now – ever since I went back to school as an adult to get my A-levels in one year.
Implementing it, I’ve found my study sessions to be far more productive too. So much so that I thought the technique deserved it’s own dedicated article. Especially for that hyper-busy breed; the medical student.
Here’s what you’ll find.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
Developed in the 1980’s as a time management method, the Pomodoro Technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo. A very Italian-sounding name for a very Italian-sounding technique (pomodoro means tomato in Italian)!
Simply put, it’s a technique that breaks time down into 25-minute chunks. One of these chunks (you can also think of them as intervals) is known as a “pomodoro”. And when they are completed you get a 3-5 minute break from whatever it is you’re doing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or buried under mountains of books at med school, you’ve probably heard of the technique. It’s been popularised on hundreds of self-development and productivity platforms. There are also a large number of apps built on the principle too.
The original technique can be broken down into several steps:
- Task allocation (pick what it is you want to get done)
- Pomodoro start (set timer for 25 minutes)
- Work (deep focus, no distractions)
- Pomodoro end (stop working when timer ends and add a checkmark to record one session)
- If you have less than four checkmarks you take a short break (3-5 minutes) after sessions only
- Four pomodoros (checkmarks) means you get a longer break (25-30 minutes)
Pretty simple stuff. And not exactly difficult for your average student to get their head around.
Here’s a quick three-minute video explaining how it works. And also why it’s so useful!
One interesting thing here? How the technique is actually named after the shape of a kitchen timer.
Why is the Pomodoro Technique Effective for Medical School?
This technique is great for medical school due to the sheer amount of work we’re actually meant to do. I’m referring to out-of-class study here obviously.
Breaking our time into intervals and then taking a break at the end of each session? A great way of focusing our efforts in those time windows. And helping maximise memory formation and recall as a result.
Of course there are caveats however. And all these come from what we’re expected to study and when (more on this later). As a general rule though I think timing your study sessions – and presenting yourself with a reward – is a very effective motivator.
This at least proved true in my A-level sessions where I would reward four pomodoros with a cheeky half episode of Game of Thrones. Even if the series did end horribly!
And it’s also proving true in medical school now. Where I’ll break down online videos (yes, I recommend certain resources over standard University lectures), using this technique. As well as Anki flashcard rounds.
How to Use the Pomodoro Technique in Medical School
Most medical students don’t need tips on how to use a timer. Nor do they need advice on how many pomodoro sessions they should do a day (whatever’s a comfortable fit).
Where they might need some guidance however is what they do in these sessions. As I’ve mentioned before; not all study techniques are equal. And effective studying should always fall in-line with the current science. Which means active recall techniques should be your number one priority.
Another key consideration is the first part of the process. Deciding what to study. Here I’d recommend going with the hardest task first. Possibly the work or subject you’re most looking to avoid (I know for me, right now, that’s pharmacology).
To make sure you’re doing this well I’d also recommend tracking what you study and keeping a log-book. Having everything planned out like this (it can just be in a simple text file or a notebook), lessens wasted time. It also enables you to jump right into the process and have confidence in the way you’ve prioritised things.
An Example of the Pomodoro Technique In Use In Medical School
To better understand how I use this approach, I’ll try and break it down for you. A typical saturday of mine might include eight pomodoros.
Usually one half of them is done in a coffee shop too. Because I just need that fuel.
So it could look something like this:
- Pomodoro 1: double-speed a Pathoma/University lecture for 25 minutes
- 5 minute break browsing Reddit/BBC news
- Pomodoro 2: finish the lecture and make/retrieve flashcards on the subject
- 5 minute break
- Pomodoro 3: finish the appropriate flashcards
- 5 minute break
- Pomodoro 4: find related question bank questions and practice the concept
- Longer break (25-30 minutes)
For me this is a staple use of the technique. It also ensures I keep a good flow between learning, retention and application. The core principles I’d argue are necessary to effective learning in medical school.
I’ll usually do one or two pomodoro sessions in the morning too. Usually only with Anki to retain and work through the cards I’m looking to consolidate into my long-term memory.
The way you use the Pomodoro Technique could be quite different. There’s not really a hard or fast rule here. So remember that it’s fine to keep it adaptive and tailor it to your needs.
Want to make longer pomodoro sessions? Do that.
Want to take longer breaks? That’s fine too.
The important thing is that you work it into a schedule and have solid goals for exactly what it is you want to do in your pomodoro time.
Because the crucial idea is there is absolutely no distraction in this period!
A great remedy to overturning a lazy medical students ways.
Things That Can Help
A lot of students who implement the technique mention the following resources as particularly useful:
- Setting a clear target beforehand of how many pomodoros you aim to do
- Tracking your pomodoro progress in a spreadsheet or note-book (thus helping you measure your time and focus your priorities)
- Split up lectures/book chapters into chunks in accordance with a set pomodoro time (then using the break period to recall/summarise to yourself what you’ve been doing)
- Use the intervals to do something stimulating like short exercise, walking, having a healthy snack etc
- Employing Chrome (or other browser) extensions like Strict Working which keep you focused during a pomodoro (stops you aimlessly surfing)
- Using websites like TomatoTimer.com to time your sessions correctly (you can also just do this in Google timer)
- Remembering to stay flexible technique to find out what works for you (longer breaks doing nothing etc.)
Personally I love this technique for so many reasons.
Not only is it powerful in getting me to shut down all distractions in the pomodoro period and strictly work, but it also helps me better shape and think about my study sessions to eliminate the waste.
Free time in medical school is a precious commodity. Techniques like this? Can help us get more of it.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.